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Monday 15 April 2024

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Police arrest a group of men caught in possession of alcoholic beverages in Kerman, Iran. Consuming, producing, or selling alcohol is punishable by prison, floggings, and fines in Iran.
Police arrest a group of men caught in possession of alcoholic beverages in Kerman, Iran. Consuming, producing, or selling alcohol is punishable by prison, floggings, and fines in Iran.

Dear subscribers,

This will be the last edition of The Farda Briefing before we take a summer hiatus. In the meantime, please let us know what you have enjoyed about the newsletter in its current format, and what changes or suggestions you have for the future. Please send them to newsletters@rferl.org.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I've been following during the past week and what I'm watching for in the days ahead.

The Big Issue

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, alcohol has been strictly banned in Iran, where consuming, producing, or selling alcohol is punishable by prison, floggings, and fines.

Despite the official ban, Iranians still drink foreign and homemade alcoholic beverages that are sold on the black market.

Over the past year, there has been a spike in the cases of fatal alcohol poisoning, according to medical officials in Iran.

On June 16, at least 14 people died in the northern province of Alborz after drinking bootleg alcohol, state media reported. Another 175 people suffering from alcohol poisoning symptoms were taken to the hospital.

Abbas Masjedi Arani, the head of Iran's Forensic Medicine Organization, said on June 20 that 644 people had died from alcohol poisoning during the past Iranian year, which ends on March 20. That, he said, was a 30 percent increase compared to the previous year.

Why It Matters: The reason for the surge in cases of fatal alcohol poisoning is unclear. But experts say alcohol consumption has increased in the Islamic republic in recent years.

Some have suggested that growing alcohol use is tied to the deepening economic crisis in Iran, which has witnessed soaring inflation, rising unemployment, and growing poverty.

Researcher and therapist Mohammad Ghadirzadeh told Iran's Etemad daily that alcohol use has increased over the past five years, including excessive drinking. He said Iran has few alcohol rehabilitation centers, and many who suffer from alcohol abuse are too afraid to seek help.

"The main problem is that many alcohol [abusers]…refuse to go to the hospital or medical centers because they are afraid that going to the hospital would result in a legal case [against them]," Ghadirzadeh said.

What's Next: The authorities do not appear to have a clear plan to curb cases of fatal alcohol poisoning.

Experts said there are likely to be more cases during the summer, when people usually take trips and hold celebrations.

Physician Hossein Hosseinnia Moghadam, speaking to the Hammihan daily, said demand for alcohol is rising in Iran.

He blamed the cheap alcohol available on the black market, which often contains methanol, for the rise in alcohol-related deaths.

Addiction expert Hooman Narenjiha said Iranians are turning to cheap homemade alcohol because many can no longer afford to buy foreign-made beverages.

Stories You Might Have Missed

Students from at least a dozen universities across Iran have issued statements of solidarity with their peers protesting at Tehran's Art University as anger builds over increased enforcement of dress codes on campuses across the country. Protests at the Art University escalated last week following the university's insistence on making the Maghna'eh -- a black cloth covering the head, forehead, chin, and chest -- mandatory. Students staged a sit-in at the university's National Garden campus, which was met with violence from security forces.

Authorities in Iran's southwestern province of Fars banned retail stores and grocery shops from employing foreigners as salespeople and shop assistants on June 5. The decision has adversely affected Iran's large community of Afghan refugees and migrants, including some who fled to the Islamic republic following the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in 2021.

What We're Watching

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian is visiting Qatar and Oman this week for talks with senior officials.

Abdollahian's trip comes as Iran said it is engaged in indirect talks with the United States over a possible prisoner swap and the lifting of crippling U.S. sanctions. Tehran said the talks have been mediated by Oman.

Why It Matters: The indirect negotiations appear to show that Tehran and Washington are keen to de-escalate tensions.

Observers said the talks could possibly lead to a deal under which Iran releases Americans held in Iran and accepts limits on its sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for relief from U.S. sanctions and the release of some of Iran's frozen funds held abroad.

Oman's foreign minister said on June 14 that Tehran and Washington were close to finalizing a deal on the release of the at least three Americans held in Iran.

That's all for now from The Farda Briefing. You can follow our coverage of Iran on our Farda English page.

Until next time,

Golnaz Esfandiari

We invite you to check out the Farda website in English and its dedicated Twitter account, which showcase all of our compelling journalism from Iran. Why not check out our other newsletters, too, or subscribe to one of our podcasts?

Iranian-American consultant Siamak Namazi (right) is pictured with his father, Baquer Namazi. The two were arrested by Iranian authorities in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Baquer Namazi was released in 2022.
Iranian-American consultant Siamak Namazi (right) is pictured with his father, Baquer Namazi. The two were arrested by Iranian authorities in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Baquer Namazi was released in 2022.

Welcome back to The Farda Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I've been following during the past week and what I'm watching for in the days ahead.

The Big Issue

Iran said it is engaged in indirect talks with the United States over a possible prisoner swap and the lifting of crippling American sanctions.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said on June 12 that a prisoner swap could be agreed "in the near future" if Washington shows "the same seriousness and goodwill."

At least three dual Iranian-American citizens are currently held by Tehran, including businessmen Siamak Namazi, who has been in prison since 2015.

Kanaani said the basis for the indirect talks, mediated by Oman, is the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the agreement and reimposed sanctions in 2018. In response, Tehran has expanded its sensitive nuclear activities, raising fears in the West that it could build a nuclear weapon.

Washington has not denied that it is engaged in indirect talks with Tehran. An unnamed U.S. official told Reuters that the two sides are not discussing a possible interim deal that could involve Tehran agreeing to suspend its nuclear activities in exchange for some sanctions relief.

"We have made clear to them what escalatory steps they needed to avoid to prevent a crisis and what de-escalatory steps they could take to create a more positive context," the official said, without offering details.

Tehran's confirmation of indirect talks came after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said over the weekend that "there is nothing wrong with an agreement [with the West]," although he added that "the infrastructure of our nuclear industry should not be touched."

The UN's nuclear watchdog said recently that Tehran had resolved some outstanding issues that the agency had raised.

Why It Matters: Iran and the United States appear to be renewing their engagement after a monthslong pause.

The sides have held talks over reviving the nuclear deal since President Joe Biden assumed office in 2020. But the negotiations have proved protracted and inconclusive, with Washington accusing Tehran of making unrealistic demands.

After the antiestablishment protests erupted in Iran in September 2022, Washington said the nuclear deal was "not on the agenda."

Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group, told me that a prisoner swap "could open the door to more de-escalation, which in turn could create time and space to discuss a way forward."

"Both sides seem to have realized that the 'no deal, no crisis' status quo could quickly turn into a 'no deal, big crisis' situation that neither side wants," Vaez said.

What's Next: It is not clear if Tehran is ready to take steps that would lead to a de-escalation, including allowing UN inspectors greater access to its nuclear sites and releasing detained Americans.

But Khamenei's comments appear to have prepared the ground for "renewed engagement with the West," according to Vaez.

Stories You Might Have Missed

A declassified U.S. cable obtained by RFE/RL's Radio Farda shows that a close associate and longtime friend of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, met with U.S. Embassy officials in Iran in the 1960s.

Iran's relations with its northwestern neighbor Azerbaijan have devolved into scolding and heated rhetoric as Tehran objects to outside influence from regional rivals in what it considers its backyard. The discord has been fueled by violent incidents, war games, Baku's military cooperation with Israel, and objections to the prospect of Azerbaijan building a trade corridor to the West.

What We're Watching

In his first trip to Latin America, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi met with his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicola Maduro, on June 13.

Raisi said the two countries have "common interests and common enemies." Iran and Venezuela are both under U.S. sanctions.

The countries have forged close ties in recent years. In 2020, Iran provided fuel to the country during a shortage.

Raisi arrived in Nicaragua on June 14 where he met with seniors officials. He will later travel to Cuba.

Why It Matters: Raisi's trip is aimed at bolstering Iran's ties with its Latin American allies and increasing its presence in the region.

Before departing Tehran, the Iranian president said the country's relations with "independent" Latin American countries was "strategic."

"Through its presence in America's backyard, Tehran wants to pursue its political and ideological calculations and create some kind of convergence with these countries," Iranian analyst Hadi Alami Fariman told the hard-line Tasnim news agency.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Golnaz Esfandiari

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Wednesday.

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About This Newsletter

The Farda Briefing

The Farda Briefing is an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. Written by senior correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari and other reporters from Radio Farda.

The Farda Briefing is currently on a summer hiatus. In the meantime, please let us know what you have enjoyed about the newsletter in its current format, and what changes or suggestions you have for the future. Please send them to newsletters@rferl.org.

We also invite you to check out the improved Farda website in English and its dedicated Twitter account, which showcase all of our compelling journalism from Iran.

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